The reason earthquakes happen

I caught this video courtesy of Friendly Atheist, in which a priest-turned-atheist gives his view of the earthquake in Japan, and something in particular caught my attention:

First, I should mention that I wholeheartedly agree with his perspective; while believers fumble about trying to rationalize "why", we nonbelievers aren't losing any sleep over who is to blame – because no one is to blame. Earthquakes happen because of plate tectonics. That's it. Not because of the wrath of God, not because of original sin, not because it's a sign of the end times. Plate tectonics.

But what caught my attention is that he points out the irony of praying to God to help the earthquake victims, when – if one believes that God is omnipotent – God is the one who orchestrated the earthquake in the first place. Believers, of course, do everything they can to reassure themselves that God has his reasons. Maybe it's because of original sin, so it's all our fault! Except, plate tectonics were around for billions of years before human beings, so that rationalization can't work even if you accept the central Christian doctrine of guilt by association. Or maybe it was a sign, or punishment or something.

But earthquakes happen all the time, and just because humans decide to build cities on or near major fault lines doesn't mean they're magically going to stop. Besides, there's an important distinction about natural disasters that strongly suggests they are not the work of a deity: they kill and maim indiscriminately. So we can dismiss the nutjobs like Pat Robertson who want to anthropomorphize every natural disaster. But what about the Alister McGrath types who try to say that this wasn't God's work at all – that it was just part of nature and God still loves us and is still omnipotent but that's just the way it is?

In his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Marc Hauser discusses the distinction we make between acts of omission and acts of commission. We tend to think much less of someone who deliberately drowned another person than someone who had the power to save a drowning person, but didn't. When Richard Dawkins interviewed McGrath for the special Root of All Evil? and pressed him on God's role in human suffering, McGrath dodged the question – more or less saying that the reasons for the nature of the natural world are beyond our understanding, so we should focus on what we can do to help others. And while the latter nicely encapsulates a secular view, the first is clearly a dodge. There is indeed a burden on believers to reconcile this act of omission – why a God with the power to stop mass death and suffering would do nothing.

When I was a young Christian, the best explanation I heard was the old "tapestry" analogy, which is basically just a cop-out that says the lord works in mysterious ways. The idea is that understanding God's will is like standing in front of a massive tapestry, and only being able to see a small portion of it. In our limited frame of reference, we are unable to see how the whole thing ties together. In the end, so we're told, God has a plan and this is all for the best. If that's the case, I suppose we ought to be thanking God for all the suffering in the world since it's all part of his Perfect Divine Plan™.

Then, when I was working as a physical therapy tech in college, I saw an 8-year-old girl dying of brain cancer. And you know what I realized? There is no Perfect Divine Plan™ that can justify such a thing. As soon as we take God out the picture, we become liberated. No one is to blame – not any person, not any God. Instead of wasting our time trying figure out the purpose of it all, we can accept that it has no purpose. Nature was, is and always will be indifferent to suffering. Now that we understand that's the way it is, we can start working on helping those in need.

Resources for the relief effort in Japan


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